There’s an old chestnut from gaming mythology - you surely know the one - about the movement in Mario’s 3D ventures being perfected by Shigeru Miyamoto at their very start with Super Mario 64. Core Design managed the same thing with the original Tomb Raider back in 1996, too. Nobody really talks about it now, while the Mario story endures. Possibly because Nintendo didn’t make umpteen identikit sequels over the following decade or splash Mario’s stretchy mug on the cover of The Face.
Really though, the Italian plumber and English graverobber were equally confident that if all their moves were available right from the start with no unlocking needed then that was enough. Both games were – are still, after a quarter of a century – the Platonic ideal of their characters. And they had bloody good swimming sections.
Lara Croft’s debut is so obviously a swimulator disguised as an action-adventure platformer. More than anything else, what shows Core had a handle on this from the start is one superfluous, elegant move from Lara’s honed repertoire: the swan dive. Using the dive anywhere other than directly above water tends to result in a graceful, yet unfortunately humorous, death.
Aim properly though, and the world’s greatest archaeologist demonstrates her Olympic potential and leaves you pressing Up, Alt and Shift at the same time as you try to pat yourself on the back. The swan dive is Core telling us that it’s okay to muck about on the jungle gym it has created, as if we needed its permission.
Tomb Raider is the opposite of today’s open-worlds. It locks Lara in a series of increasingly intimidating, chunky levels that are designed to accommodate her side-shuffles, forward rolls and lunging jumps. Core seems to have realised this could get a bit claustrophobic, what with all the random animals sprinting after you through tombs.
That must be why it flooded parts of these dank places with oddly glistening, clear waters to explore, almost like Lara stumbled upon an ancient leisure centre that Saint Francis of Assisi built in his spare time. Finding a stretch of H20 to running jump into always provides a handy escape route to avoid the bears, gorillas or great big stomping dinosaurs that seem to come out of nowhere to chase Lara down.
Yes, the peace of guiding Lara through Tomb Raider’s watery areas can be interrupted by the occasional passing crocodile. It doesn’t matter because the swimming is so atmospheric and feels so satisfying in action. On land, navigating Lara up masonry or across chasms is meant to seem weighty and dangerous, likely to end in a steep drop to her doom if you don’t align her just right.
Breaching the surface of the water is a change of pace; if it wasn’t for the noise of liquid and the sight of some bubbles around her, then you could mistake Lara’s breaststroke for flight. There’s always the faint peril of drowning as you hunt for switches or medkits but, hey, why not just forget the rest of the level and enjoy a pleasant dip?